October 18, 2010

Kansan trained with Wright, flew zeppelins

For more than half a century, Harold “Hal” Dick lived in Eastborough, where he served as a council member and mayor and president of Wichita Ponca Canvas Products.

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

For more than half a century, Harold “Hal” Dick lived in Eastborough, where he served as a council member and mayor and president of Wichita Ponca Canvas Products.

Occasionally, though, he’d talk about the pilot licenses he had earned in both free-balloon and blimp flight that were signed by Orville Wright, and how he had started his career by first working for the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation in Germany.

He is the only American to have made 22 trans-Atlantic crossings in the passenger airships Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin.

He missed only two flights on the Hindenburg — the “propaganda” flight ordered by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and its final flight, when it crashed into a fiery heap at Lakehurst, N.J., claiming 36 lives.

Dick was born in 1907 and raised in Lawrence, Mass. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio.

In 1930, he received his balloon and dirigible pilot’s training from Wright.

In 1934, Dick became Goodyear’s liaison to the German Zeppelin Works. During the next five years, Dick spent the majority of his time in Germany, becoming friends with officials of the company and learning details of the airships’ construction and technology.

What was it like flying in those huge zeppelins?

“The closest thing to it would be if you just floated this whole house up in the air and you opened the windows and stuck your head out,” he told The Eagle in 1985. “It was almost like a flying hotel.”

In the 1930s, zeppelins provided the only regular non-stop commercial trans-Atlantic air service. It preceded the days when planes could fly the distance.

The immense zeppelins could cross the Atlantic in three days, half the time it took by ship.

The Special Collections and University Archives at Wichita State University has a collection of some of Dick’s memorabilia, including correspondence to him from Goodyear president Paul Litchfield, postcards he mailed from aboard the airships to document his flights, and a boarding pass and passenger list from the Hindenburg dating May 6, 1936. Exactly one year later to the day, the zeppelin crashed in New Jersey.

He had planned to be on that flight but his American boss surprised him with a visit. So, he canceled his ticket to brief his boss on the progress of the airships.

Dick continued to work for Goodyear until 1945, when he moved to Wichita and began working at Ponca Canvas.

He later became a lecturer for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronauts, making presentations on passenger airships and Nazi Germany.

In 1986, he wrote, “The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships: The Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg,” which was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press.

Dick was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 1995. He died in 1997 in Wichita, at age 90.

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